Forward Momentum: radical reformers or new establishment?

By Sacha Ismail

Lots of what leading Forward Momentum activist Keir Milburn advocates in his recent Novara Media article sounds good.

“Momentum is the obvious vehicle through which activists in and around the Labour Party can organise, rethink and make ground towards a socialist future. But at the moment, Momentum isn’t fit for that purpose… it’s not entirely clear what it’s purpose is.”

“…if there are disagreements among the membership over strategy, then we need something quite different [from Momentum’s current structure and culture]. What Momentum does going forward is now more than ever an open question and it must be subject to rigorous collective debate, planning and decision-making… The structures as they exist right now are simply not fit for this purpose. They have contributed to a situation in which most Momentum members feel disempowered, disengaged and sometimes even hostile towards the organisation’s centre.

“…members should have the right to shape the organisation’s priorities and direction, choose its leadership and hold them to account….

“But democracy is about more than structures. It’s about culture and political education – providing people with the confidence and skills they need to participate politically.”

Lots of other things Milburn says, however, should ring alarm bells and beg big questions.

Democracy

Momentum is what it is because in January 2017 a coup on the organisation’s steering committee abolished all its national and regional structures by fiat and imposed the current set up, a thinly veiled dictatorship by the organisation’s office. A year later Michael Chessum, who was a member of the committee, described the decisive turning point:

“[On 10 January 2017] at 19:39, an email landed in the inboxes of Momentum’s Steering Committee from Jon Lansman, the Steering Committee Chair. Out of the blue (for some of us, at least), and with a conference already planned to debate the issue democratically, it proposed a new constitution for Momentum, which banned non-Labour members and promised to replace existing structures with an online democratic system [which were never set up]. By 20:54, a majority [of six votes to four!] had been declared in favour of its contents. Momentum’s entire democratic structure was abolished instantaneously.

The background was a months-long struggle in which the office-faction that dominated the Steering Committee had struggled, in both senses, to prevent the much broader National Committee from functioning. This faction was losing; the NC had, despite its best efforts, repeatedly agreed to hold a national conference with delegates from local groups. So Lansman and his allies resorted to their coup, with all the consequences that followed for what Momentum became as an organisation.

Milburn not only fails to explain what happened: he whitewashes the coup by describing it as “the somewhat acrimonious constitutional changes of early 2017”. He adds:

“In theory this approach did have merits, potentially preventing established left groups from marginalising the majority of unaffiliated members and giving decisions made by OMOV greater legitimacy.”

In other words, he more than half-endorses the utterly spurious justifications given for the coup.

Milburn writes as if the problem is that the Momentum leadership did not really implement the “online democracy” they promised. It is certainly telling that they did not even stick to the rules of their own constitution, or anywhere near. For instance, after the “Members’ Council” selected by lot proved troublesome for the office, it met not every six months – but once and then never again.

But if the constitution had been followed the result would have been more regular and accessible channels of consultation, not meaningful democracy or accountability. What terrified the office-faction above all was the idea of a national conference of members’ representatives which actually took decisions about and controlled the direction of the organisation. That is not surprising given the hard time they had with the lively regional networks, made up of delegates from the local groups.

It seems such a prospect worries many in Forward Momentum too – since they pointedly do not advocate it, either in Milburn’s article or from the organisation itself. Yet such a structure is pretty essential to meaningful national democracy, for reasons the Fire Brigades Union’s Ben Selby (also a leading figure in Forward Momentum) explained recently:

“I do believe a conference is by far the most democratic option, in that you can put motions forward, disagree properly and have real debate and deliberation, which is much harder in other formats. That’s certainly how we do it in the FBU.”

The substitution of better mechanisms of consultation and “participation” for actual democratic decision-making and control suggests a risk that a new, Forward Momentum-dominated National Coordinating Group could be essentially a more open, pleasant, energetic version of what we have now. No small difference, but not anything fundamentally different in respect of democracy.

Particularly given the low bar of where we are starting from, more regular information and regular and accessible consultation might stem Momentum members’ frustration and the fall off of membership. In cannot create an effective organisation capable of “rigorous collective debate, planning and decision-making” – hammering out goals and strategy through a genuinely collective, member-controlled and -driven process.

Those in Forward Momentum who believe in real grassroots democracy and accountability need to fight for it.

The culture of the movement

In terms of the culture of democracy, it is absolutely true that the undemocratic nature of the current Momentum structure and regime has generated an extremely negative political culture. To put it mildly. My old borough of Lewisham, where I was secretary of the Momentum group and a delegate to the regional network, was an extreme but telling case. The office took revenge on an active, critical-left local group that had been a thorn in its side by supporting an undemocratic takeover attempt led by Stalinists (including many of the type who actually display pictures of Stalin on their social media). The London regional organiser, aided by several other staff members, actively oversaw and aided the attempt.

The drive to take over Lewisham Momentum was accompanied by the spewing of accusations not only of “Zionism”, transphobia and collaboration with the Labour right, but also of people being state agents and supporting child abuse. It moved on to episodes including the Secretary of the new-model Lewisham Momentum screaming “Paedo” at a group of young people in a pub and, finally, a physical assault outside a Momentum meeting.

None of the complaints made to national Momentum even received a response.

This political assault generated poisons which seeped through the culture of the Lewisham Labour left, making the left in the borough a thoroughly unpleasant place and greatly weakening its impact and influence.

Lewisham is an extreme case of a wider culture of political slander, bullying and intimidation that seems to have become central to how the current Momentum hierarchy operates

It would be much more pleasant not to have write about all this, or ever think about it again, but it is important. For reasons Keir Milburn identifies developing an accessible, inclusive and empowering culture is not an optional extra for an effective Labour left organisation.

In Lewisham and elsewhere, such grossly uncomradely, sectarian and disruptive culture and practices have been aimed above all against what we would describe as the critical-internationalist-class struggle left, including the nexus of groups of which the The Clarion is part. It is extremely important for anyone serious about ensuring an open, democratic, productive left culture to forcefully challenge such targeting, whether or not they agree with those being targeted – not remain silent. Do the comrades who run Forward Momentum believe that too?

What is Momentum for?

As Milburn indicates, the fundamental question is what Momentum exists to do. He says:

“Forward Momentum proposes that, as well as organising in the Labour party, Momentum should focus on building power in communities, providing training, support and resources for members and supporters to organise their own campaigns, or plug in to existing ones. Such campaigns should focus on building public support for socialist ideas over the long term and supporting those engaged in the struggle for economic and social justice. This would represent a shift towards building forms of social power rather than just electoral power, or power solely within the Labour party.”

The first thing to say is that it was precisely to close off the possibility of such a democratic, campaigning social movement that the 2016-17 Momentum coup took place. This is how I described the issues at stake in late 2016:

“Those opposing the Steering Committee majority generally want an activist organisation based on local groups, which get people out on the streets and campaign systematically in the Labour Party, and which therefore debate the ideas and policies to put forward on the streets and in Labour. ‘The other side’, as far as we can see, generally wants a sort of Labour-focused version of the 38 Degrees organisation, which has an unelected Board of worthies, an appointed office staff, and members connected mostly by electronic communications from and occasional ‘consultations’ by the office.

“Related to that is how clearly socialist, and amicably and constructively critical of the Corbyn leadership and willing to build pressure on it, Momentum should be.

Secondly, despite the rhetoric, Forward Momentum seems to have remarkably little to say about anything to do with struggles or issues in the real world – despite the huge issues and struggles facing us. Again, that begs big questions about what the organisation stands for.

Thirdly, the counterposition between social activism and struggle in the Labour Party is telling. The issue is not that Momentum was effective inside the Labour Party but failed to get out on the streets. Its failings as an activist organisation were intimately connected with its refusal to fight to seriously transform Labour – to go beyond supporting left candidates in internal elections to fighting for serious democratic reforms, cultural changes and policy shifts.

In 2019, there was a stepping up of struggles over Labour policy and campaigning on a range of issues (migrants’ rights, climate change, workers’ rights, housing…), including at Labour conference. Left-wing activist groups won major victories at conference, which helped shape Labour’s general election manifesto, though particularly in the context of the defeats that followed not enough to reorient the party leftwards.

A few of those running Forward Momentum were involved in these campaigns, but only a few. The organisation has little to say about taking these struggles forward, in Labour or more widely. Milburn writes that Momentum ran “effective conference voting operations”, which may be true in the technical sense of having contact with delegates, organising through apps, etc. But in terms of providing a framework for delegates to self-organise and debate the issues, and promoting democratic rule changes or left policies, it has consistently been a nullity or worse.

Milburn also says: “Only now it’s over can we see how audacious we’ve been.” What strikes me is precisely how unaudacious and unambitious the Labour left has been during a remarkable period of opportunity, and Momentum in particular.

The left has been so focused on Corbyn as leader, on winning positions in the party and on elections that it has failed to develop a serious agenda for transforming Labour and for campaigning to change society. In fact those who ran Momentum shut down its internal democracy precisely because they saw the latter priorities as counterposed to and threatening the former.

In terms of what this meant for the kind of movement we have, take the crucial and decisive issue of workers’ rights. We had a left party leadership that of course was pro-union; it made lots of noises about support for workers and no doubt sincere ones. However, with occasional exceptions, it was generally reticent either to attend picket lines or to demand the scrapping of all anti-strike laws (despite Labour conference calling for it repeatedly). We have a left much of which was remarkably reluctant to push on or say anything about this, and perhaps even not very interested.

Some Momentum groups did good work in support of workers’ struggles; the organisation as a whole and certainly its national office and apparatus did very little. This is not the only issue around which this kind of problem existed. Migrants’ rights is another crucial one to consider.

Consider also the crucial problem that the Labour Party has not seriously campaigned for anything outside elections, and that Momentum never pushed for it to. Except in combating the old right-wing (sometimes), Momentum’s trajectory was central to reinforcing Labour’s failings rather than tackling them.

To turn things around, Forward Momentum needs a radically different approach. That is why it needs real, substantive internal democracy: to hammer out a strategy and demands for campaigning in Labour and in society. Keir Milburn and those with similar views need to decide what they think about this. In the crises we are living through and trying to organise in, and the even greater ones we’ll be facing soon, evading the issues is not good enough.

• Check out Momentum Internationalists

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